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Liz Smith, senior vice president of economic competitiveness for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, seen here speaking before a joint meeting of the Metro Council and East Baton Rouge School Board in March 2017.

Four current and two newly elected members of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board visited Indianapolis last week on a two-day trip showcasing that city’s mix of charter schools and autonomous district-run schools.

“Indianapolis is a really interesting place in what they are doing with their school district,” explained Liz Smith, senior vice president of economic competitiveness for the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.

Indianapolis has many similarities with Baton Rouge, with shrinking enrollment, budget challenges and a growing charter school sector, so it serves as a good point of comparison, Smith said.

Smith said while BRAC organized the two-day trip on Dec. 18-19, the cost of hotels and meals in Indianapolis was covered by a new nonprofit, City Fund. Board members fronted the cost of their flight but BRAC’s political action committee, Future PAC, is reimbursing them in the form of campaign contributions, Smith said.

City Fund was created earlier this year by charter school supporters. The fund has reportedly raised $189 million already, making it one of the richest educational nonprofits in the country. Its seed money came from large donations from a private foundation of Houston hedge fund manager John Arnold and his wife, Laura, and from the Hastings Fund, a philanthropic created by Netflix co-founder and CEO Reed Hastings.

City Fund is dedicated to rapidly spreading what’s known as the “portfolio” school model to urban school districts across the country. It’s a controversial school reform adopted by a growing number of cities, including Indianapolis, Denver and Washington, D.C. In an analogy drawn from the investment world, a school district manages a “portfolio” of schools and, relying largely on test scores, grows good ones while closing bad ones.

In portfolio districts, charter schools have generally expanded rapidly. Some of those cities, including Indianapolis, also have a hybrid, in which district schools are granted charter-like autonomy or charter operators take over district schools.

East Baton Rouge Parish has 29 charter schools, second in Louisiana only to Orleans Parish. Charter schools are public schools run privately via contracts, or charters. 

The four current Baton Rouge School Board members who went on the Indianapolis trip were Mark Bellue, Jill Dyason, Michael Gaudet and Evelyn Ware-Jackson. All were recently re-elected to new four-year terms.

They were joined by Tramelle Howard and Dadrius Lanus, who defeated incumbents Kenyetta Nelson-Smith and Vereta Lee. Lanus is the more recent winner, besting Lee in a Dec. 8 runoff. Howard and Lanus aren’t scheduled to take office until Jan. 8, when they are to be sworn in.

Also accompanying them on the trip were three representatives each from the Baton Rouge Area Chamber and the nonprofit New Schools for Baton Rouge, Smith said.

By taking just four current board members on the trip, Smith said, organizers were trying to avoid any potential problems with Louisiana’s Open Meetings law that might have resulted if five or more current members had gone, which would represent a quorum.

Smith said BRAC would be happy to organize a second trip for the three current board members who did not go on the trip: Connie Bernard, Dawn Collins and David Tatman.

Bernard said a Chamber representative contacted her on Dec. 10 about the trip, but after learning that four current board members were already going, she raised concerns about triggering a quorum if she went as well. She also said the trip was called on short notice and would have been difficult given the time she's spending caring for her husband, John, who is undergoing treatment for cancer.

“I was willing if I needed to go and be there,” Bernard said. “But I did have a lot of questions.”

Bernard also said she’s not sure how much she would have gotten out of the trip.

“Why do I have go there and see it? Can’t I just go and read about it?” Bernard asked.

BRAC has been pushing the portfolio model for years. In 2014, it helped craft legislation that would have eliminated much of the Central Office in Baton Rouge and shifted almost all power to individual principals. A parade of principals, however, helped defeat the legislation by arguing they already have a lot of responsibilities and the legislation would be too much to put on their plates.

That defeat, however, has not dimmed ambitions of BRAC and like-minded groups who see the approach as a key way of improving public education.

In late 2017, a couple of East Baton Rouge Parish administrators and board members Collins and Ware-Jackson went to Indianapolis in a trip organized by New Schools for Baton Rouge. That trip was meant to help the school system as it prepared a multi-million school improvement grant.

Collins is critical of charter schools and has expressed skepticism about portfolio districts. But she found aspects of her Indianapolis visit helpful.

“I thought it was profound how they took the time to figure out what their shared values were as a board,” she said.

On Oct. 16, New Schools and the Urban League of Louisiana held a conference in Baton Rouge exploring portfolio districts with panel discussions focused on Denver and Indianapolis. Indianapolis’ outgoing superintendent, Lewis Ferebee, was one of the panelists.

Howard and Lanus were propelled into office amid of wave of more than $300,000 in independent spending by outside groups that support charter schools and were funded mostly by contributions from out-of-state billionaires. John Arnold, the Houston hedge fund manager, has reported spending $160,000 on those School Board elections through his advocacy group Action Now Initiative.

Both Howard and Lanus say they were already familiar with the Indianapolis story, but were happy they visited the city and generally liked what they saw.

“Indianapolis does a very good job of working as a collective,” Howard said. “In Baton Rouge, people all have their own agendas when it comes to working for kids.”

“It showed me that we can do these same things here in East Baton Rouge Parish,” Lanus said.

Current board members who went were more cautious in describing what they saw.

Gaudet downplayed the visit. He said Indianapolis is very different from Baton Rouge. “What stuck out for me was that change is hard to come about and it takes years,” he said. “And you have to implement changes that can be sustainable.”


Follow Charles Lussier on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.